Epic showdown for Cavaliers
Published 4:26 pm Thursday, August 31, 2017
By Kevin Eckleberry
HOGANSVILLE – It’s a clash of the titans.
The Callaway Cavaliers are Georgia’s second-ranked Class AA team, and they’re coming off an impressive 26-0 victory over LaGrange in their season opener.
The Handley Tigers are ranked first in Class AAAA, and they won an Alabama state championship a year ago.
On Friday, those two powerhouses will get together at Callaway Stadium for a highly-anticipated matchup.
A year ago, Callaway and Handley played for the first time in the history of the two schools, and it was a classic.
Handley led by seven points in the fourth quarter, but Callaway finished the game on a 21-0 run to win 42-28.
While Handley shrugged off that loss and won a state title under head coach Larry Strain, Callaway went 13-1 and reached the state semifinals before losing to Benedictine.
“You want to play good opponents,” Callaway head coach Pete Wiggins said. “I feel like that makes us better. And they’ve got play-makers, and they’re well-coached. Anytime a team has got good skill, and they’re coached up, they’re a tough opponent. So we have to be ready to go.”
Both teams have different looks.
Handley was hit hard by graduation, and it also lost a key player to injury during last week’s scrimmage against Sand Rock.
QuonDarius Lyons, who was expected to be Handley’s starting quarterback, injured his hip on the team’s first play from scrimmage.
Callaway also lost some key players from last year’s team, including quarterback Dylan Johnson, who helped engineer the comeback against Handley.
“We lost a lot of play-makers from last season, Braylon Sanders, Dylan Johnson, Michael Freeman, Jibrell Jackson,” Wiggins said. “And I know they lost a lot of play-makers. But they’ll have a great football team. (Strain has) a great staff, and they’ve got a successful program. So they’ll be ready, and it’ll be a big challenge come Friday night.”
Callaway didn’t play last week after opening with the win over LaGrange on Aug. 18.
While Callaway’s defense delivered a dominant performance in the shutout win, the offense improved as the game went along.
Quarterback Kedrick Ramsey threw a touchdown pass to Courtney Williams, and Ramsey also had a scoring run.
Callaway’s other touchdown came when DQ Wilkerson returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown in the first half.
Noah Stephens made a field goal to cap a scoring drive in the first half.
Callaway offensive coordinator Matt Napier said everyone has been focused on getting better since the LaGrange game.
“We always tell the kids, every day’s a day to get better,” Napier said. “You’ve got to get better today than you were the last practice. And they’ve really done a good job. We’ve got a good group of senior leaders, and they’ve taken it to heart, and they’re really committed to being another good team, and they’ve really improved a lot over the last couple of weeks.”
Handley beat Sand Rock 7-0 in the scrimmage game that resulted in the injury to Lyons, who was knocked out of bounds after a 14-yard gain.
Lyons’ replacement, Corey Bell, came in and completed 5-of-7 passes for 84 yards with no interceptions.
“It’s really going to change our whole offense,” Strain told the Randolph Leader. “We were going to be able to do different things (with Lyons). Now we have Corey in reserve to come in and play for us, and now you’ve got to protect him a little more. You’re going to have to be a little more conservative in your quarterback play.”
Handley’s ground game was effective against Sand Rock, with Devontae Houston running for 93 yards on 11 carries, and Cadarious Burton had a scoring run.
Handley’s defense figures to be a strength of the team, and that was the case against Sand Rock.
Napier said Handley is a complete team that is “super-talented” and “super-physical.”
“They’re well-coached, and they’re an established program that does a great job,” Napier said. “They win year in and year out. It’s the next-guy-up mentality. There are a lot of similarities we feel like with us as far as they’re going to be good every single year. Guys graduated, and another guy steps up and is able to play.”
Napier said Handley’s defense will present a stern test for the Callaway offense.
“They’re really good, they’re physical up front,” Napier said. “They’re big and physical. They’ve got big defensive linemen, they’ve got physical linebackers. They’re very athletic in the secondary. So they present a challenge like most teams that are number one in the state will bring. They have everything you’re looking for.”
A year ago, Callaway appeared to be in trouble against Handley after falling behind 21-6 in the first half.
The Cavaliers scored a touchdown late in the first half to get within seven, though, and they dominated the second half.
Callaway’s offense chewed up huge chunks of yardage in the second half, while the defense didn’t give up any points in the final two quarters.
“We continued to pound on them, and we kind of took over in the second half,” Napier said. “I don’t think that’s a knock on them. It was one of those great games where two good football teams were going at it, and we were going back-and-forth, and we ended up with the last couple of punches to get the lead.”
A year ago, Callaway didn’t have an off week before playing Handley.
This year, Callaway has two weeks to prepare for the Handley game.
“I think an off week is always good,” Wiggins said. “I think we got extra reps. I think we were able to heal up some bruises. The kids are ready to play. They know the level of opponent that Handley is going to be, and we just have to go out and play hard-nosed, physical football.”